Dan emerges from shadows of The Darkness
LIVING up to the success of The Darkness is an unenviable task, but lead guitarist Dan Hawkins is ready to rock again. He told Jonathan Barnes how the Lowestoft sensations fell apart - and how his new band, Stone Gods, will never rely on past glories.
LIVING up to the success of The Darkness is an unenviable task, but lead guitarist Dan Hawkins is ready to rock again.
He told Jonathan Barnes how the Lowestoft sensations fell apart - and how his new band, Stone Gods, will never rely on past glories.
LOOKING back, Dan Hawkins can pinpoint the time when The Darkness became too big for their stack-heeled boots.
“I remember playing Brixton Academy and thinking it was tiny,” he laughs. “We'd been playing huge shows to 25,000 people. It became a bit of a circus. If we get to that stage with our new band, I'll go out of my way, try my very best, to play the smaller shows, no more than 5,000 people. You need to keep in touch with your audience.”
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Dan, the younger, more reserved of the Darkness brothers, has taken things back to the absolute basics since the most successful rock band ever to come out of Suffolk spectacularly fell apart two years ago amid Justin's battle with drink and drug addiction. The guitarist's new band, Stone Gods, featuring three ex-members of The Darkness, are less about fanfare, more about foot-to-the-floor, no frills heavy rock. Think classic AC/DC, all sledgehammer riffs and crashing choruses.
They've seen the fist-punching delirium of fans when they first hit the road in their new incarnation, and are now hoping debut single Knight of the Living Dead and forthcoming album Silver Spoons and Broken Bones are the start of something big. But not too big.
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"I'm not out to play arenas again. We're very confident, we've got strong songs and we're looking at this as a long-term thing. In 10 years' time we want to still be touring and making records, not just trying to grab as much glory as we can."
Dan, 31, is far too mature and modest to bad mouth his brother, but you get the impression the final days of The Darkness stretched the relationship to breaking point. He also wasted little time setting out on his 'own' once Justin announced the end of the band in July 2006, following a stint in rehab. The story goes that within half an hour of the news, Dan called Richie Edwards, then the band's bass player, to ask if he fancied doing some singing, and within days the new line-up, featuring Darkness drummer Ed Graham and new bassist Toby Macfarlaine was complete.
"When we broke up, at first it was a bit of a bummer," admits Dan. "But I use the analogy that it was like splitting up with a girlfriend - suddenly you get that euphoria, the chance to do something completely new and different. The Darkness did its thing and then some - we always knew it was going to implode, it was just a case of when."
Relations with Justin, the flamboyant, catsuit-clad, falsetto frontman who had captured the hearts - or at least the attention - of the world, may have broken down irreparably, but Dan had no intention of splitting on his other bandmates. But this wasn't The Darkness with a new singer, he insisted, it was a fresh start - and, while he saw no reason to stop working, the guitarist felt it best to lie low for a while. There was no press release, no official confirmation of what was going on, just four mates locking themselves away and working on a whole new sound.
"We didn't want to wait around for the legal bits and bobs to be sorted out, we wanted to find the right people to work on our record. But because of our past we had to tread carefully, we didn't want it to seem like we were trading on past glories. So much so that we worked up a homegrown, organic sound - it's not 'ta-da! We used to be The Darkness!'
"When we were ready to gig, I told our agent to book some venues and it spread through word of mouth. It wasn't advertised. We started off and venues were half-full, by the end they were selling out. The fans knew all the songs already - or at least people were trying to sing along, without really knowing the words. We've enjoyed the time to get things right."
But now the Stone Gods secret is well and truly out. The band have just signed a record deal, with the Play It Again Sam label, and it's watch this space. "Up to this point everything we've done has been low key fashion - no real promotion. This is the start of things."
Dan says the album was inspired by three rock masterpieces - Queen's A Night at the Opera, Metallica's self-titled "black album" and Guns N' Roses' Appetite for Destruction.
“It's anthemic and quite heavy,” he says. “The early stuff was very heavy and riff-based but the album is really quite varied. There's some acoustic stuff, I've really pushed my songwriting abilities.”
It was recorded at Dan's studio at his home, Leeders Farm, in Spooner Row, near Wymondham.
“Ever since I moved there the idea was to build a commercial studio and launch a business as well. Our album was a test run for that,” he says.
While they enjoyed the peace of the Norfolk countryside for recording, the band played some support gigs in November, before heading out on an “off the radar” tour earlier this year.
“It's been great playing the small shows, and getting in touch with the audience again. We've been able to do some signings after shows and meet the fans.
“That would never have happened with The Darkness, our security was our worst nightmare. We would have been torn to pieces after a show.”
It's easy to see why Dan may want to scale things down with his new band. You can't imagine Richie riding a giant white mechanical tiger while playing a solo, and a Christmas single isn't likely to be on the cards either. Then there was the huge public interest in The Darkness for those few crazy months in 2003. “We never seemed to have any time,” he recalls. “We were always facing the next deadline, running late for the next venue.”
Did the pressures of being in The Darkness just get too much? “Not for me, but it did for other people,” he says, leaving little doubt who he's talking about. “A lot of interesting things went on - but I'll save them for the book!”
Dan says he's been in email contact with Justin and played him the Stone Gods album. “He loves it,” he happily adds.
But he admits he hasn't had eye contact with his brother since the band split - it would seem that both need time for the wounds to heal.
“I think he's sorted himself out but, to be honest, he's been getting on with his things and I've been getting on with mine,” he says, struggling to find the words to describe current relations between them; sentences stop and start. “It was…some people just…it's not even to do with…his personality changed as all that went on.
“It's been a while since I've seen him, back to the time it was all messed up with The Darkness. It wasn't a good time. But things happen for a reason.
“I don't know what he's up to now, he's been acting, writing for children's TV programmes, there are rumblings he might be getting together another band.”
Perhaps we might see the Hawkins brothers touring again then, I suggest? Dan laughs. “I don't think that's going to happen - over my dead body!”
They know it's not going to be easy, but Dan and co are now determined to lay their past band to rest.
“If someone complained we didn't sound like The Darkness, I really couldn't care less,” he insists.
“The comparisons don't bother me at all. I'm really proud of my previous band but I think we sound different enough. It's a new band, a new direction. You're never going to be able to please everyone.”
The new group also represents a marked shift in songwriting. While Dan wrote most of the music for The Darkness, with Justin penning the lyrics, this time it's far more of a team effort.
“I still write the majority of the music, but I've also got involved in lyrics and it's a collaborative process, we're all bringing things to the table.
“To be honest, that was make or break, if we could write together. But it seems we've found a magical formula.”
The reaction of critics and fans to the album will be the real test, of course, but for the moment Dan is just enjoying the new band. No bull, no drama. It's a quieter life, even if the music is still turned up to 11.
“We're all really excited about where we're going with this band,” says Dan. “It's a lot of fun and I love working with these guys. It really shouldn't be as easy as this.”
Stone Gods' debut single, Knight of the Living Dead, is out on June 23 and the album, Silver Spoons and Broken Bones, follows on July 7.
The band are also on tour throughout June, including a gig at Norwich Waterfront on June 29. For more information go to www.stonegods.co.uk